By Paul Sung
In an international phone call on October 22, 4:40 p.m. KST, a Korean-American male based in Canada warned, “There will be a concert at the [Busan] Asiad Main Stadium today, and I installed explosives under the stage and in various other places. I’m calling because I regret my actions.” Fortunately, no such device existed and the K-pop girl group Apink was able to perform without any incident. But this was not the first time that he threatened Apink.
In fact, the suspect allegedly threatened Apink a total of 12 times since June 14 this year, when he claimed that he would enter the group’s agency headquarters and kill them with a knife. In response to the threats against Apink, Interpol released a red notice, and the Korean police are working with Canadian law enforcement officials to proceed with the suspect’s arrest.
Back on June 15, the suspect explained his motivation in a phone interview with news outlet Osen:
“I’ve been a fan of A Pink for 6 years, and I spent a lot of money and time on A Pink. I felt betrayed when I saw A Pink, who aren’t even actors, going on blind dates with actors in training. I called the agency, and it made me angry when they responded vaguely. That’s why I called the police station to make death threats… I don’t plan to turn myself in yet. However, I don’t have any thoughts of actually hurting A Pink either.”
In response to threats against Apink’s member Son Naeun prior to an October 19 event at Dongguk University, K-pop news outlet Koreaboo and Plan A Entertainment described the suspect as a terrorist. As popular as it is in our post-9/11 world to worry about terrorism, K-pop fans are misapplying a particular category of crime by applying the term “terrorist” to the criminal behavior.
One of the reasons for this confusion is that there is no universally agreed-upon definition of what constitutes a “terrorist” or act of “terrorism,” even among organizations working for the same government. This is in part because organizations emphasize different things in crafting their definition. In the United States, for example, the State Department looks for motives, the FBI emphasizes methods, and the Department of Defense focuses on objectives. Countries like South Korea use vague and broad terms, as evidenced by the 2016 Anti-Terror Act.
Despite the challenges in defining terrorism, there are certain factors that distinguish the specific act of terrorism from other types of crimes like mass killing. In the aftermath of the Apink bomb threat, this analysis will explain why the police should not classify the suspect’s bomb threats as a terrorist act, even if the perpetrator actually went through and succeeded with committing such an atrocity. To be clear, this explanation does not condone or justify violence. The purpose of this writing is to confront the lack of scrutiny in the invocation of terms like “terrorism,” “terror,” and “terrorist.”
Defining Terrorism in History
Terrorism has been around for thousands of years, with groups such as the Sicariis and the Shiite Hashashins plotting assassinations and other forms of political violence against the Roman Empire and the Sunni Abbasid caliphate in Baghdad, respectively. However, the original definition of the term terrorism comes from the eighteenth century as régime de la terreur, violent actions instigated by the state during the French Revolution, not by revolutionary or anti-government actors. During the Reign of Terror, terrorism entailed the mass guillotining of real and perceived enemies of the state. Later, however, the definition changed from naming “high powers” to “low powers” as the principle actors who conduct terrorism. Section 2656f(d) of Title 22 of the United States Code, for example, defines terrorism as “premediated, politically motivated violence perpetrated against non-combatant targets by subnational groups or clandestine agents.”
Nation-states, although they can sponsor terrorist organizations or specific terrorist activities, may not constitute potential terrorists according many definitions that follow the prerequisite of “lower powers.” They could, however instill terror onto others through violent acts like genocide. According to linguist Geoffrey Nunberg, however, there are nuanced differences between “terrorism” and “terror.”
Killing is not the end goal of terrorism. The thrill of killing is also not the goal of terrorism, as Boris Savinkov, head of the Combat Organization of the Socialist-Revolutionary Party in Russia, explained to an aspirant. The loss of life simply comes as part of a cost-benefit calculus that the positive results would overcome the negative repercussions. Many experts, including Columbia University Adjunct Professor Brigitte Nacos, understand terrorism as violence or the attempt of violence for influencing “the behavior and actions of targeted publics and governments.” Many people, however, debate various attributes on this particular type of political violence, such as whether or not terrorism only involves targeting civilians and noncombatants. Some experts would be more inclined to call the targeting of military combatants an insurgent or guerilla attack. There is also the issue of whether or not people consider attacks or the threat of attacking property under the category of terrorism. Regardless, political violence aims to further a view with a system of “coercive intimidation.”
Some people could make a postmodern argument that the elimination of life itself constitutes an alteration of political behavior. Postmodern terrorists, in a way, “alter reality” (or threaten to do so) through the change in the state of existence of agents of action, and therefore influence political activity. This logic alone, however, would made the definition of terrorism too broad and useless for practical application of civilian policies, military doctrine, and public discourse.
Director of the Center for Security Studies Bruce Hoffman distinguishes ordinary criminals from terrorists by highlighting how terrorist acts are not committed for personal motivations like material gain. Ordinary criminals have “designs or the intent to have consequences or create psychological repercussions beyond the act itself” and convey a political message that goes beyond the individual’s self. They also do not seek a change in public opinion or “the system.” According to Hoffman, actual terrorism, by nature, is not egocentric. The actions of sasaengs – hardcore idol fans – stem around self-gratification as the prime motivation actions that intend to reap very little behavioral change, and therefore don’t fit this definition of terrorism.
Apink is Technically Not a Victim of Terrorism
For many people, merely the implementation or threat of implementing violence against civilians is sufficient to categorize a person as a terrorist. In Apink’s case, the suspect certainly gained media attention and used it to share his message. Furthermore, his actions clearly instilled some level of fear on the girl group members and people within their vicinity. Perhaps the suspect underwent something similar to a process of ideological development that went from saying “the world’s not right” and “it’s not fair,” to then look at Apink’s “betrayal” against him and say “it’s their fault” and “they’re evil.” From what we can tell, however, here are “1-2-3-4-5” reasons why the perpetrator is not a terrorist:
1) Even if the actions against Apink are based on some sort of pseudo-religious system of principles, there is no expansion of those ideas to alter people’s perceptions.
2) Unless further evidence shows otherwise, he does not seek to change political behavior; the behavioral change the perpetrator probably hopes for the most is his idols noticing and remembering him. If the theatrics of violence aims to grab attention to himself, then he gives way for the third reason.
3) No great cause beyond an individual’s self-gratification explains or defends the reasons for the threats of violence.
4) Justifications of his actions are void of any appeal to systemic change of public opinion or behavior. The perpetrator also does not seek to undermine confidence in the Korean government or break societal trust through consequences such as a division among social groups.
5) In the end, there is no evidence that he wants lasting consequences that extend beyond the immediate effects of his threats.
Distinctions matter because they have major ramifications for how society understands and reacts to certain violent behaviors. In the U.S., for example, angry questions of why certain individuals like the Caucasian male shooter of the 2015 Charleston attack are not considered a terrorist add fuel to the contemporary domestic American conflict. While it is safe to say that all murderers or would-be murderers are criminals, people fail to recognize that not all murderers are terrorists. There is a need, in the United States, South Korea, and elsewhere in the world, to improve understanding of political violence and prudently push back on rash and inaccurate categorizations of violence. Doing so helps us address these forms of political violence in the long-term.
Paul Sung is currently an Intern at the Korea Economic Institute of America. The views expressed here are the author’s alone.
Photo from Gene Wang’s photostream on flickr Creative Commons.